The fiery and ferocious nature of the Merseyside derby has sometimes made it difficult to pick particular trends and isolate specific tactical battles. Many of these games down the years have been tight, scrappy affairs with both teams looking to pack the midfield and make it difficult for their opponents to play.
Often one player—usually Steven Gerrard, occasionally Tim Cahill—has been the difference on the day.
This is where the Merseyside derby has often differed from the Manchester and London clashes. In those games, the emphasis seems to be on outscoring your rivals. On Merseyside, there seems to be a culture of “must not lose.” After all, when was the last time we witnessed a 6-1 or 4-4 Everton/Liverpool clash?
The games have been attritional and fiery, but this year, the indications are that this might just be a much more open, free-flowing game with greater emphasis on the tactical side of things.
Why? Because we have two managers who are very reactive in the way they approach games. Brendan Rodgers in particular considers himself to have a wealth of tactical acumen.
In this season’s first derby at Goodison Park, he changed to a 5-3-2 formation at half-time, which helped stem the Everton tide. He clearly doesn’t shirk the big decisions in the high-profile games.
That game at Goodison was one of the most open derby games in years. How will this one pan out? Let’s have a look at some of the key tactical talking points. First of all, how both teams are likely to line up.
Yep, you guessed it.
Liverpool will almost certainly start with the same XI that triumphed over Newcastle. Gerrard and Lucas Leiva will operate in the double-pivot, whilst Stewart Downing will play from the right. Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho will flirt between the central and left-midfield roles.
Expect Everton to bring Darron Gibson back into the side at the expense of Nikica Jelavic. Marouane Fellaini looks likely to partner Gibson in a deeper role, with Leon Osman in a more advanced position. Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar will provide the width.
Space is going to be at a premium, so with this in mind, expect Coutinho to start from the left-hand side, with Henderson more central.
The former Sunderland man should give Liverpool a bit more energy in that area, which will be key in getting the better of a solid Everton holding duo.
The key player from an Everton perspective has to be Gibson. He has a very underrated skill set that is noticeably missed when he is not in the Everton lineup. Fellaini will look to get about the pitch and disrupt attacks with his unique somatotype, but when it comes to defensive awareness, he lacks a lot of the qualities of a Lucas Leiva, for example.
This is where Gibson comes into his own. Expect him to get tight to whoever is the most advanced midfielder for Liverpool and put them under real pressure.
With Gibson and Fellaini patrolling those areas, the likes of Henderson and Coutinho are going to have to work harder to find space. If Everton can shut this space off, with it goes the majority of Liverpool’s creativity.
Expect Liverpool to attack Everton’s right-back area. Trying to stem the attacking flow in that area of the pitch will be Seamus Coleman, a player much more renowned for his attacking capabilities over his defensive ones.
To be fair to Coleman, the defensive side of his game has seen a significant upturn since the turn of the year. However, this game may well represent the sternest test of his defensive fortitude to date.
Coutinho and Henderson will look to overload that area of the pitch, trying to isolate Coleman and resultantly pull Phil Jagielka across and out of position.
In an attempt to combat this, expect Pienaar to line up in front of Coleman. He is much more likely to offer defensive cover than Mirallas and the South African’s energetic style can help disrupt Liverpool in this area.
Mirallas, starting on the left, will have a bit more license to do what he does best.
Everton’s biggest attacking threat is likely to come in the shape of Mirallas. With Pienaar likely to spend a large chunk of the game tracking back, the Belgian winger will be tasked with giving Everton a quality option on the break.
Granted, Mirallas is a player who can occasionally flicker in and out of games, but as Sylvain Distin made reference to this week, he has the ability to turn a game in an instant—such is the quality he possesses.
Glen Johnson has had a decent all-around season, but he can definitely be gotten at. Either one-on-one or via the space his forward bursts can sometimes leave.
Mirallas' pace and dynamism are weapons Everton have lacked in past trips to Anfield.
With Liverpool likely to dominate possession, springing attacks from deep and using the Belgian’s directness could pose problems for the Reds.
Liverpool have struggled up against physical centre-forwards this season. Carlton Cole, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke have all had plenty of joy at Anfield at the expense of a Liverpool back line that often exudes fragility instead of authority.
So expect Everton to play the ball into their own powerhouse striker on a regular basis. Victor Anichebe needs to put in a big performance.
When the ball is played into him, it’s got to stick. From here, Everton can build counterattacks and bring the likes of Fellaini, Pienaar and Mirallas into the game.
Fellaini and Osman can also swap positions if needed, with the physicality of the former always likely to cause problems.
Set pieces are another area which Everton will look to exploit. Both goals against Liverpool in their last Anfield encounter came as a result of some awful defending from corners.
With Anichebe, Fellaini and Distin all major aerial threats, Everton must take advantage of their set-piece opportunities. Leighton Baines and Mirallas need to get their delivery spot-on.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball